We all have heard the old saying, "A rising tide
raises all ships." The inverse is also true. A tide that goes
out, or a body of water that changes its course, can leave a
fleet of ships high and dry. I am not sure if there is a sight
more forlorn than once-beautiful boats in disrepair, languishing
on a beach far from a body of water that has changed course.
Organizational change is not enough when the tide has gone out,
when the body of water you have known and navigated with great
skill has shifted and altered its contours and boundaries. Fine
tuning your organization won't get the job done when the whole
fleet must adapt to a new context.
It seems that for most of my life I have bemoaned
all the gray hair evidenced at our mission executive meetings. I
have seen youth in our fellowship as a major sign of vitality
and a promising future and I still do, but this past week I was
forced to look into the future and it profoundly shocked me. My
mental tremor came from a chapter in the book, The Future
Church: Ten Trends that are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church,
by John L. Allan Jr. One of Allan's "Revolutionary Trends"
is demographic. Among other things, I read the following:
"What we know for sure is that by the time today's
twenty-year-olds reach retirement age, the population of the
world will be contracting. The decline will be most aggravated
in Europe and parts of Asia, including China, which could lose
20 to 30 percent of its population every generation beginning
around mid-century. Declining fertility, coupled with the aging
of the "baby boom" generation, means the elderly will be the
fastest-growing segment of the global population, leading to
substantial increases in the median age in most countries ..."
"It took the United States fifty years, from 1950
to 2000, to increase its median age by five years, from 30 to
35. In the first fifty years of the twenty-first century, by way
of contrast, Algeria will go from a median age of 21.7 to 40, a
jump of almost 18 years in the same span of time. In Egypt, by
2050 the elderly population will be growing twice as fast as the
working-age population. In China, the ratio of elders to young
people will swell by a factor of four, with 26 percent of the
population 60 or older by 2040, meaning some 360 million people.
Demographers describe China as facing a 4-2-1 problem: Each
young adult will potentially be caring for two parents, plus
four grandparents. Brazil is aging at a rate 2.1 times that of
the United States and 3.1 times faster than Holland. By 2050,
according to the UN numbers, one quarter of Brazil's population
will be over 60, a total of 63 million people ..."
"How far and how fast population will drop remains
to be seen. The UN's "low scenario," which assumes that
fertility rates will stabilize at 1.85 and stay there, puts the
global population in 2300 at 2.3 billion, which would be a
stunning decline by more than three quarters from where
population levels are estimated to peak in the second half of
the twenty-first century, around 9 billion ..." (Sub-Saharan
Africa is the big exception.)
Allan's principle time horizon is 2050 not 2300.
That is only 40 years from now. When I was young, 40 years
seemed an eternity. Now it seems just around the corner, and I
am shocked to realize that I missed one of its most important
implications. The world 40 years in the future is going to look
much different, not because of "whiz bang" technology or "Star
Wars" stuff, but because our present world peopled by poor angry
young people will be replaced by a world of aging men and women
with little recourse to the basic necessities of life. Most will
be isolated from extended families, and most of the world's
governmental support systems will be severely stressed by the
sheer weight of social and medical cost associated with caring
for seniors. Philip Jenkins is quoted as saying: "The most
successful grassroots movement in the Middle East may not be
Hamas or Hezbollah but AARP." That quip could be applied to most
regions with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa, which will
continue to grow dramatically.
The reasons for this aging and contracting
population are many, and complex. One of the central components
is the massive migration to the city and the adjusted world view
that flows from that move. Already more than half of the world's
inhabitants live in urban environments, and they all seem to be
exploding with frenetic growth. These cities are young today,
but their birth rates are falling precipitously. That means the
population will age quickly.
In the country kids are an asset. They can work
with the family and are seen as part of a productive future. In
the city two incomes are essential, so "mom" works outside the
home. Children threaten that income stream. In the city
children are seen as a major expense. In this new materialistic
world of "things," the decision often becomes a child or a car,
home, TV, or some other material possession. The "car" and
"things" most often win out over a baby, another mouth to feed.
Thus, birthrates fall and, with better medical care, the
My ministry mindset has locked in on today's
"small half of the world," the young world. To me it has become
the permanent context in which mission must take place. This is
the world we live and minister in today. However, I want to
expose you to the world of 2050 so that you can creatively begin
to seek God for His vision for the new context that is even now
emerging. Listen to John Allen again.
"In its 2005 report Taking Care: Ethical
Caregiving in Our Aging Society, the President's Council on
Bioethics reached this sobering conclusion: "In the years ahead,
the age structure of most advanced industrial societies will be
unlike anything previously seen in human history, with both the
average age of the population and the absolute number of old
people increasing dramatically." While the North will get old
first (one might be tempted to call us "prematurely gray"), the
rest of the world will eventually catch up. By mid-century both
Mexico and China will actually be more "gray" than the United
The world of 2050 could well be a time of
generational conflict. Governmental systems will be overwhelmed.
Will scarce resources be used to assist the young and
defenseless or the elderly and feeble Who will pay their bills
The ratio of productive workers who must support both the young
and old will be diminished and overburdened. The extended family
networks of the agricultural society will have been destroyed.
Remember the Allen quote describing China as; "facing a 4-2-1
problem" with each young adult potentially caring for two
parents plus four grandparents. That isn't realistic to expect.
Already in the US, women are spending almost as much time giving
care to their seniors as to children. These caregivers are also
getting older, so the burden is becoming heavier. Will the
productive young be willing to pay the heavy financial and
effort burden to care for the elderly
Organizational change is not enough when the whole
context is changing or has already changed. Re-tooling our
structures or "tweaking" the way we relate to one another and
get our jobs done is inadequate when the world in which one
expects to function looks more like me (old) than my 18 year old
grandson. In this case a fundamental change in our mental
picture of the world is demanded.
These facts and questions are probably enough to
shock you as they have me. John Allan makes one major
affirmation that is both hopeful and indisputable. I totally
concur with his statement of hope.
"As one of the few institutions in society that
routinely brings the elderly and the young together, the Church
has a unique capacity to help negotiate the generational
conflict that future decades are sure to witness."
Should the Lord not return before then, the Church
will be ministering effectively in this 2050 context. An aging
planet does not take its Creator by surprise like it does me.
This emerging context for ministry will have imbedded in it
divinely endued opportunities for the continued advance of
Christ's reign. We must begin even now to prepare the leadership
for 2050. This is the reason the 4/14 movement is so critical.
These are the children (between the ages of 4 and 14) who must
be reached and trained today, for they are the Church of 2050.
God in His divine omniscience has placed on the hearts of His
people a passion to reach those who inhabit the 4/14 window of
our day. They are also the 60/75 window of 2050.
This Musing has contained a lot of dry demographic
facts and projections. We don't know the future, and the
situation could change. However, let me encourage you to
exercise your Spirit-inspired foresight and look at the world
which is most probable. Let the Lord who controls the future
begin to enflame your imagination and burden your heart with the
possibilities He has built into this probable future.
Your friend and fellow pilgrim ..... Paul